From behind the lens, Canadian photographer Greg Girard has formed a visual archive documenting the ephemeral nature of the modern world
The passing of time is a disorienting element of human existence. Somehow time can fly past us in a blink or feel as if it is practically standing still. We watch as the world around us grows and shifts. We find ourselves simultaneously shocked by the speed with which the world around us has been altered and oblivious to the extent of the repercussions these changes have on our lives and landscapes. Exposing the invisible force of change, is Canadian photographer and avid traveler Greg Girard.
Girard was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada but had a dream to travel. Camera in hand, he began capturing scenes of the everyday, buildings, and people that unearthed new facets of the world-renowned cities across Asia. His work coalesced into an archive of the ever-changing social, cultural, and political climates of these cities across more than three decades. He captures what it means to experience the everyday at this point where the antiquated and the modern collide. From the cracks in foundations, street lights, and even time itself, Greg Girard’s photography is one of unknowingly watching history unfold.
Seeing What’s in Front of You
While often unfamiliar places, there is something familiar within these images of Girard’s journeys around the world. There is a vintage quality that permeates his aesthetic. It is something bordering the cinematic, heightening the drama, significance, and beauty that we may otherwise dismiss as mundane. He developed an attentive eye that allows him to document places new and old, stripping them down to their authentic essence, while still creating captivating scenes that transport his viewers into new worlds.
TM: To begin, can you tell us how old were you when you first picked up a camera and what was it about the medium that drew you to becoming a photographer?
GG: I was 16 when I bought my first camera. Around that time I started looking at photographs in books and magazines. The best of them, and not necessarily by famous photographers, gave you this sensation that the world was more full of possibility than you realized.
TM: Part of what makes your style so distinctive is the way you intermingle the aspects of street photography with that of the cinematic. What drew you to capturing these spaces in such a manner?
GG: I never set out to make photographs that were cinematic, and I don’t think about things in that way. But I certainly admit to watching a lot of films back when I first started out. In those days, in the 1970s, it was relatively rare for a film to have a really strong distinctive visual style, especially in colour. I definitely noticed one when it did. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the name of a single cinematographer, however. It probably wasn’t until Paris, Texas came out, in 1984, that I actually started paying attention to the names of certain cinematographers, like Robby Müller. But it’s more a case of recognizing a visual compatriot: someone who pays attention to the same things I do.
TM: Going hand-in-hand with this cinematic approach is your use and manipulation of color. What is the role of color in your creative process and approach to the photographic medium?
GG: Almost all my published work has been shot on film. The colours are really just straight scans from the colour transparencies, so there’s not any manipulation besides getting the scan to look like the film. With color negative there’s more room for interpretation, but I probably shoot 90% transparency/positive and 10% color negative.
I suppose one reason colour attracted me was simply to avoid any of the romanticism, nostalgia, and pseudo-documentary baggage that comes pre-loaded with black and white. In particular, I got interested in what happens with color transparency film at night. Early experiments with long exposures and mixed light sources showed me colours and atmospheres I’d never seen before. It probably sounds outrageous to say this but I felt like I had “night” completely to myself back then. Most people put their cameras away after the sun went down, or used flash. Or, if they did photograph at night, they were drawn to conventional “night” scenes, such as neon signs and such. At some point, I started paying as much or even more attention to where the light, from signage, streetlights, or whatever, was falling rather than from where it was originating.
The Journey of the Visual Nomad
Just as the cities within Girard’s work have undergone series after series of evolution, so has the way we look at exploring the globe. We are in an age of digital nomads, living and working around the world when all they need is a computer. It is hard to imagine traveling without the comforts of today, an intricately detailed and up-to-date map, a fully flushed-out itinerary based on hours of internet searching, and even a pre-booked place to lay our heads.
It is from this modern perspective that Girard’s photographs are instilled with a new energy. His images are more than nostalgia for the ever-changing environments but for a fleeting state of being for travelers today. A raw, visceral, and instinctual pursuit of the unknown is read within these photographs. It ignites an adventurous spark that challenges us to go out, explore, and celebrate what the world has to offer. They inspire us to see what it means to experience the ‘everyday’ among new settings and new people.
TM: Looking through your body of work, it is undeniable the presence and influence of the cities across Asia you visited. What was it that drew you to the Asian continent and how did it become such a prominent part of your artistic career?
GG: I decided to visit Asia after finishing high school. I saw a photograph of Hong Kong in a Time-Life book on photography that made me want to go. So I worked for a year, saved money, and caught a ship to Hong Kong in the summer of 1974. I traveled around South East Asia and then lived in Japan for a number of years, finally ending up in Hong Kong again in 1982, and falling into a job with BBC Television News as a sound recordist. I was part of a small news crew that covered news in the region, based in Hong Kong. Which gave me the journalistic grounding to start working for news magazines as a photographer a few years later. All I ever wanted to do was figure out how to make a living as a photographer and Hong Kong and the BBC eventually helped me do that. Later, life as a magazine photographer sort of ran its course, and while I was grateful that it allowed me to make a living, I also wanted to continue, or return to, making pictures that didn’t necessarily illustrate a magazine story, or any story really.
TM: Your work embraces an element of transformation. When you think back on some of your favorite locales, what is your biggest takeaway after spending decades witnessing their evolution?
GG: I don’t think I’ve been particularly great at timing, in terms of career or other key areas of life, but by some combination of instinct and luck I ended up living through and working in arguably the most transformative periods of three incredible places: Tokyo in the 1970s and 80s, Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s, and Shanghai (and all over China) in the 90s and 2000s.
TM: Within your work, you capture a sense of isolation and loneliness even among the busiest of settings. As an avid solo adventurer, can you share with us what it was like to travel alone during the 1970s up through today?
GG: Before I started working as a photographer, and was simply traveling around and photographing, guidebooks and maps were all there was to get one’s bearings. unless you had friends or family in distant locations, which I didn’t. Traveling to smaller places there might not even be a listing in the guidebook for the town, so you got off the train or bus or boat and either walked until you found a hotel, or asked a cyclo or taxi driver to take you to one. Everything was paid for in cash, so you carried traveler’s cheques and cash. Many of the countries one visited required a visa in advance, even for tourism. Places like Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia all required visas before boarding a plane or ship. Once arriving in larger cities you would head to the main post office to see if there was any mail for you, having first notified friends or family you were eventually heading there, sent ℅ Poste Restante, General Post Office, Bangkok, for example.
Later, when I started working for news magazines, I was usually able to tap into a network of local journalists and photographers in the countries I was visiting. They were the ones who actually knew what was going on. I would travel with a short-wave transistor radio to listen to the BBC for hourly updates. I also carried a regional airline guide, the size of a medium-length paperback novel, which listed all the flights in the region, in case I had to get from A to C via B quickly.
TM: The idea of traveling is still rather daunting for people today, even with the advent of the internet and social media spawning connections around the globe. However, when you embarked on your travels before these technological forms of communication had taken hold. How do you feel the rise of social media has changed these experiences and what are your thoughts on its prevalence in today’s society?
GG: It’s astonishingly easy now to move about foreign cities via Google and GPS. We all use whatever is at our disposal to make life navigable in strange places. And then there’s the adventure of following your instincts without knowing exactly where you’ll end up.
Instigating our Fascinations
Girard’s adventures continue today. With a number of book projects and new series, his artistic practice continues to grow and reach new audiences. While seemingly keeping one foot placed in the past, he is not afraid of what the future might bring. He is finding the fun in the new technologies and frontiers of the photographic medium all while maintaining his authentic style and perspective of the world. Looking ahead, Girard is continuing to capture what slips between the cracks with an adventurous and experimental spirit
TM: Reflecting on the exponential growth of technology and the rapidly shifting nature of our modern world, how have these changes to society impacted your career, whether technically or thematically, as an artist?
GG: I’m usually the last one to know anything and I’ve just learned that there’s now text-based AI where I can enter a line of text and it will generate a picture. I can add my name and it will generate a photograph that supposedly looks like one I would take, based on data from ones I’ve already made. I’ve tried it and they are even more interesting than my own pictures. To me anyway.
TM: In addition to your collections of photography are the books you publish. These projects seem to intersect the realms of photography with other forms of documentation, constructing your own sort of archive. What do you hope people will take away from these new archives you create?
GG: I tend to get interested in things or subjects that sort of slip between the cracks; often they’re hidden in plain sight. Or things and subjects that maybe require a slight shift in perspective before they reveal themselves. It could be a figurative perspective, as in paying attention to something judged too mundane, or out of favour, to be worthy of contemplation; or, an actual physical perspective of a kind that might require access not usually available because of privacy or security concerns. Often I have some sort of personal connection to it, and I’m curious and intrigued to know more. My hope is that I can make people feel as fascinated by it as I am.
TM: While you have your upcoming book project preparing to release, are there any other projects on the horizon you are looking forward to?
GG: I’m getting close to finishing a book project in Japan that got dropped for three years because of the pandemic. At least one or two more visits to Japan are required to finish it. Also, another book or two in the works, based on pictures from the U.S. and Asia in the 70s and 80s.
Closer to home, I’m photographing around where I live, just outside of Vancouver. No idea what’s going to come of it. This is the point: I also need to be photographing with zero expectations to keep myself sane.
Greg Girard embraces the dirt and the dark, the mayhem and the modern, the ephemeral and the eternal. Girard’s works are portals of escape into the unknown that exist right before our eyes, but not for long.